In the UK more than 200,000 tonnes of food are disposed of every single year by supermarkets and retailers. Accounting for 1.3% of the total food waster per annum, the produce makes its way to the landfill sites, despite the fact, the number of people dependent on food banks continues to rise each year. Although the push towards zero waste remains glistening, seemingly out of reach, the necessity to improve current regulations and food redistribution channels should be number one priority. As France last year reset the parameters of discussions, having introduced a blanket ban on supermarket waste, the UK must look to solidify its position and address the growing hypocrisy here in the country.
I had been blissfully unaware of the sheer magnitude of food waste here in the UK until very recently. One evening, traversing the all too familiar plains of social and environmental problems in the world today, a discussion arose about ‘dumpster diving’ in the city (conversations like these surface with increasing frequency giving the Internets ability to share and connect knowledge and information). I listened as my roommates regaled tales of bountiful supplies of fresh food that could be uncovered in a network of abundant supermarket bins. The lucrative nourishment unknown to me was common knowledge to a growing cohort of active students, homeless, unemployed and food poor families. Were I’d been fruitlessly waiting until the evening for discounted items to appear at the front of the store, I was unaware that unsold goods would eventually appear in refuse containers outside the premise later that night; usually mere hours past their sell-by dates, tossed carelessly aside, unable to complete their intended cycle.
As if to prove the scale of the situation, that very evening, a small group of us equipped only with hungry mouths and able hands made the journey to the local Marks & Spencers. Inconspicuously located at the rear of the supermarket stood a number of standard council wheelie bins. To the untrained eye they flagged no suspicion, yet to those I was with they harboured a dark secret about our countries abhorrent food waste. Somewhat sceptically I plucked open a bin lid; although a bright effulgent light did not illuminate my dark pupils what I saw would certainly be cause to dilate them. A bounty of fresh fruits, pastries and oven meals shone from the depths. That evening there were nine bins, each 140-litre unit filled to its capacity. I was informed things were not always so fruitful. Yet knowing this food would become mere garnish for landfill sites as hungry mouths across the country went without felt unpalatable. We filled the boot of the car feeding friends and ourselves for several days – barely scratching the surface of what was available that night.
Armed with this knowledge and draped under a veil of darkness (as it stands dumpster diving is still illegal here in the UK) I made more frequent visits to supermarket bins. Tapping into this wealth of sustenance like an endless pit of fuel felt like I had struck precious minerals. Though with each venture I was always left wondering why this food wasn’t reaching those who needed it most. How can people be going hungry and this perfectly edible food was going to waste?
The current systems in place for food redistribution of this nature in the UK flickers mercifully between completely flagrant and asinine at best. Though the recognition that the supermarkets are failing to offload the food where it is needed most, the focus should not exclusively be on persecuting retailers, though highlighting these hypocrisies are a start. Instead, the motivation should be to unite people and ideas across the food supply and demand chain. The aim of which should be to enrich connections and promote improved legislations to develop stronger lines of communication between charities, food banks and supermarkets. The very underpinning could provide food with dignity, rather than have an increasing number of people from food poor backgrounds salvaging perfectly edible food from refuse containers.
Though, the entire system would need to be reevaluated, strengthened and supported. It would be completely otiose to offload thousands of tonnes of surplus food to understaffed charities and organisations; the weight of those wayward cauliflowers and cinnamon buns could be enough to create toxic levels of contamination under the pressure of incongruous government legislation. Trapped gasses, and methane build-up would be enough to bring the whole idea crashing down.
Yet we are seeing pragmatic solutions and alternatives arise as France continues to forge preliminary ‘food-steps’ on the path to eradicating supermarket waste. The problem in the past rarely breached the retailers’ premises, as it had always remained a problem of cost. In France, like the UK, you would expect to pay considerably more to dispose of food waste with charities opposed to having it dumped in landfill sites. Yet, fresh and improved incentives that now subsidies the cost help to bring it down from almost 365 euro per tonne to less than 65 euro per tonne; making it now not just morally justifiable but also financially viable. As positive initiatives flourish the next stage of course would be to draw support for foods banks and organisations in the sector, bolstering the workforce, storage units and refrigerator capabilities.
The supermarkets and retailers may only account for 1.3% of the total food waste here every year in the UK, but this comparatively small segment should not be overlooked. The ramifications of such expound themselves on everything form environmental to economic issues and a whole host of social problems that come with it. The deeper you pry into this seemingly benign pile of waste it becomes increasingly more evident that this is a far darker pile of slugery, heavy and laden with inconsistencies and inefficiencies. Take for instance the Hollywood rigour we expect when it comes to purchasing only aesthetically pleasing fruits and vegetables. Produce that fail to meet these unrealistically high standards of perfection become ‘seconds’, instantaneously depreciating their value despite no compromise to flavour and nutrient content. As they roll down the farmers’ ladder, many never leave the field, deemed too expensive to pick. Tesco, in the face of this and increasing pressure from a recent T.V celebrity chefs condemnation, have helped produce a line of ‘Wonky Veg’, in a bid to change attitudes and highlight that beauty is only skin deep. It is certainly a start, but too little to make any real impact on the towering landfill sites across the country.
Overshadowing this, making supermarket waste feel like the ‘just-out-of-date’ cellophane wrapped courgettes at the top of the landfill site, is the colossus of home waste that makes up the majority of food waste here in the UK. On-going efforts to inform and educate about the importance of not over stocking perishable goods, or pushes to start food sharing cooperatives between neighbours, and even the benefits of freezing extra’s would all have their positives. But looking inward at the current methods of supermarket labelling and the bewildering recommendations offered should be revised. Everything from sell-by, to use-by, best before and display until can be found on products (often and confusingly on products from the same manufacturer). For the most part they remain recommendations, and our own ability to deduce whether food is edible or not is something that should not be underestimated. Before the time of pre-packed and neatly presented goods we implemented sight and smell to ascertain if it was good for us to eat – though more care should certainly be used when it comes to meat products. The supermarkets need unanimous guidelines otherwise we will continue to see tonnes of food disposed for no good reason.
As I was writing this I had first hand experience of the power of small, local changes within the food sector. When visiting a popular whole foods retailer here in Edinburgh the owner asked if I would like a couple of free pastries. I hesitated and met his eye with a cautious gaze, asking sceptically, why? His tone insinuated the absurdity of my question, as he stated matter-of-factly, they were going out of date soon. Of course, it made sense, why would he do anything other than offer them to customers rather than toss them in the bin. As I left two tubs of humus were placed in my hand, which I ate that night as I lamented more on the food redistribution here in the UK.
The UK cannot continue to absorb the weight of incongruent and hypocrisy laden legislation without real pertinent discussions taking place. With pressure mounting and calls for improved regulations and reform echoing across the channel we must continue to support local groups and organisations who provide fair food redistribution. In the next part I will make my own bid to tackle food waste within my own local sphere.
By Liam McGuckin